Philip Selway is in a good place right now. Radiohead‘s current hiatus has allowed him to return to his solo career, a place where he writes the songs, sings them and gets to select who performs and produces them. When Selway is not keeping time with Radiohead, his music sounds very different. Gone are the abstract lyrics full of paranoia and the supernatural, the clockwork-like guitar interplay, and the most dynamic interruptions this side of the Pixies. In their place are hushed songs, buoyed by guitar and acoustic guitar, that straddle the line between sad balladry and contemporary singer-songwriter.
What he lacks in melodic strengths, Selway makes up for with little hooks, and the fact that he is the one member of Radiohead to sound the least like Radiohead when on his own is something notable on its own. Selway carried this approach across two albums and an EP, but it was his soundtrack to the film Let Me Go where he really hit his stride. Not only was Selway coming into his own as a songwriter and arranger, but the resulting recording was both diverse and memorable. Somber folk freely swirled with string quartets, giving the music an emotional boost on which the film extensively relied. As an album, it was far more convincing than his prior solo work, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Selway is shooting for the same moon on Strange Dance.
For Strange Dance, Selway snagged guitarist Adrian Utley, keyboardists Hanna Peel, drummer Valentina Magaletti, string and brass arranger Laura Moody, multi-instrumentalist Quinta, and producer Marta Valentina for his own “dream set-up”. To everyone’s credit, everything feels like a natural fit. The strings provide ample bedding but never steal the show, and Utley’s guitar never makes one distractedly think of Portishead. The synthesizers never tip the mix into anything resembling synthpop, dance, or electronic music. Yet, Strange Dance doesn’t take off the way that it should. Sometimes an artist’s overall feeling of comfort and contentment can bring about a wellspring of fresh material, and sometimes it can put an artist in a creative rut. While Strange Dance is not a weak album, it does feel like it’s stuck in its ways.
More than ten years removed from his solo debut, Familial, Selway is still singing like he’s whispering through two inches of foam. This wouldn’t be such a concern if his lyrics were a little more opaque, but that’s not the case. Instead, his hushed delivery winds up highlighting the clichéd content. “I couldn’t be alone tonight / I need you here by my side / I’m lost without you now”, “I’m on the outside / I’m on the outside looking in / Watching you falter / Watching you wait for your life to begin,” “But say, this night was never meant to end like this / Tell me that I’m wrong, so wrong and I throw it all away / And in this strange dance, hold me in your arms tonight.” Listening to him play it so lyrically safe for 47 minutes can be a strain, and it’s easy to find oneself wishing he would take some poetic license now and then.
Fortunately, the full-bodied arrangements of the music make up for the lyrical shortcomings. “Little Things”, in particular, gets Strange Dance off to a dramatic start with the daybreak crescendos that stand in such stark contrast to Selway’s even-keel singing voice. The piano figure that keeps “Check for Signs of Life” in motion is quite effective, guiding the dirge through moments of full bloom and subsequent falling action, with Utley repeating the same figure. “Picking Up Pieces” and “Make It All Go Away” are Strange Dance at its most upbeat, though they’re still relatively subdued by Selway’s all-too-precious touch. Only the title song sounds truly mismatched, with some junkyard percussion getting a chance to set the scene on Selway’s ruminations on life and romance.
“What Keeps You Awake at Night” steps up in terms of approach and sound, smearing whatever it can against the wall in hopes that this messy collage will pass for atmosphere. It mostly succeeds, though one can get the nagging feeling that the near-seven-minute length wasn’t done out of artistic necessity. To be fair, “Salt Air” does a splendid job of living up to its name. All you have to do is ignore couplets like “I know I’ve been unkind / I’ve wasted so much time”, and you can practically sense the ocean air slowly building as you calmly stand on the sand.
Strange Dance is not Phil Selway’s best solo work, but it badly wants to be. The reverb is just too deep, the orchestrations too lush to be otherwise. Despite his team’s bid for big songs with big sounds, it all comes out sounding a little too one-dimensional to be Selway’s best work. Perhaps it’s the material itself or the repeated use of the same production tricks, but something’s just not hitting the mark here. All the pieces are there, and many fit together quite well, but the sum of the parts is not delivering what was promised.